Nineveh–Preaching and Repentance
Yahweh will brook no further delay, and for a second time the word of command comes to Jonah: “Arise, go…” And so the prophet strides grimly into Nineveh to powerfully deliver a fearful warning of judgment to come. With only forty days probation before them, the entire city responds, as there is added to the stern message of the prophet, the urgent call of their king, summoning his people to humility, repentance and a complete change in their way of life. And the Divine judgment was stayed.

3:1–4 Jonah goes to Nineveh, his message of warning and appeal

3:1 “And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time saying”

How wonderful is the patience and longsuffering of God with His people. His word came to Jonah the second time”. And we are reminded in this pointed comment of both Divine mercy and hu­man intransigence. There are occasions for all of us when, alas, we must be reminded a second time and more of our responsibility before God.

This principle of the “second time” is seen in Joshua 5:2 when Joshua is called upon to circum­cise again the children of Israel the second time”. Well this was a physical impossibility! But the expression is used to remind them of their failure to follow the principle of circumcision with the generation born in the wilderness. Israel could not enter into their inheritance until this task, related to birth, was accomplished. The nation had to be born again.

Elijah too, fleeing from Jezebel, is touched twice, spoken to twice, responds twice and finally is told, Go, return”. There was work to be done, a new beginning for the nation to be accomplished (1 Kings 19:7–15).

Finally, the Lord Jesus Christ outlined the lesson of new birth to Nicodemus in response to his ques­tion: can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born(John 3:3–8).

Now Jonah, reborn as it were from the grave, has a new beginning in his life and mission. Perhaps some weeks of recuperation and reflection have passed since Jonah’s ordeal in the ocean. Certainly with the regular commerce of the times, it is most probable that Jonah’s story had spread far and wide, even to the distant kingdom of Assyria.

3:2 “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.”

Arise, go.” Nothing has changed. The command is identical to that of chapter 1verse 2. I am Yah­weh, I change notis the Divine declaration (Mal 3:6). Jonah’s task is again to preach or to cry out to the city, and he must do so in the precise terms that God will supply. It is as though the interven­ing circumstances since Yahweh first gave His commandment in chapter 1:2 had not taken place. God’s Word will be preached, Nineveh will have opportunity to repent, Jonah is the chosen vessel for that purpose, and whether he agrees or not is of no consequence whatever.

3:3 “So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, ac­cording to the word of the Lord . Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.”

Now Jonah is obedient. Arise, gois the com­mandment; arose, and wentis the response. Perhaps his reluctance is implied in the statement that he went according to the word of Yahweh”.

Nineveh was, to follow the literal Hebrew, a great city to God(margin). This might simply be a Hebraism having the sense of a very great city as it has been translated in the av. Or perhaps we really are meant to understand that the city and its people were indeed of importance to Almighty God. It was too a city of three days’ journey”. It may well be as some suggest, that rather than this being simply a reference to the sheer size of the city, there is here the language of diplomacy. The city was of such consequence that an important emissary such as this prophet from Israel, would visit for no less than three days to present his credentials, relay his message and make his formal farewell to the dignitaries of the city.

3:4 “And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and  Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

From his entry into the city Jonah declares his message: Yet forty days [the probation number], and Nineveh shall be overthrown”. This is the full extent recorded of Jonah’s message. In the Hebrew it is even more brief than appears from the av. Just five arresting words. Doubtless he expanded considerably on this statement. Yet these words contain the essence of the preaching that I bid thee(v2). The message is dire and urgent, Nineveh is scheduled for destruction, and repentance alone will bring salvation. The plight of all flesh echoes through these words. Apart from Christ, death and oblivion will befall all men. Our Lord highlights the principle: wide is the gate and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat(Matt7:13).

Despite the seemingly implacable nature of Jonah’s message to the Ninevites, there is no doubt that repentance and change was also part of the mes­sage. Indeed, the very word “overthrown” used by Jonah contains the sense of “overthrow”, “overturn” or “turn” as in Deuteronomy 23:5, But the Lord thy God turned the curse [of Balaam] into a blessing”. So the Ninevites could rightly see in this term both a warning of destruction and a call to repentance.

3:5–9 The Response of the Ninevites– Conversion and Repentance

3:5 “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.”

The Ninevites believed God. Jonah speaks, but God is believed! Literally they believed in God”. Yes, the allusion is to Genesis 15:6. The Ninev­ites exhibit an Abrahamic faith. Jonah witnessed to a resurrection story. He doubtless relayed his experiences—God had mercy on me: He will also have mercy on you. Our Lord adds his testimony to the record. Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, and they repented at the preaching of Jonas(Luke11:29–32). The sign was in the man and his message. Just as the queen of the southhad heard of Solomon and his wisdom, so the Ninevites had heard of Jonah’s amazing experiences, which made his compelling words to them irresistible.

Proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth.Faith produces works meet for repentance. The Ninevites follow the spirit and actions of the Day of Atone­ment (Lev 23:27). Fasting was a token of mourning and contrition (Dan 9:3–5; Psa 69:9–11). It declared that this repentance was from the heart, acknowl­edging the need for change. And this response covers all levels of society from greatest to least. Distinctions of rank and position disappear. And the Ninevites stand side by side with the Galatians: sons of Abraham and “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28–29, Rom 4:16–17).

And note the speed of this response. It came on the first day. Jonah had only begun to enter the city. Once he began to speak, others took up the refrain, and the gospel spread through the city, passing from friend to friend, from stranger to stranger, whis­pered to the poor, and finally proclaimed, trembling in the very presence of the king.

3:6 “For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”

Having heard, the king now leads the nation in repentance. He arose from his throne”. There is a symbolic abdication in favour of Yahweh and we are reminded of the words of Isaiah taking us forward to the time of the Kingdom when the Gentiles shall come to thy light and kings to the brightness of thy rising(Isa 60:3, 9–10).

He removes his kingly robe. The word is used in Joshua 7:21 of a certain goodly Babylonish “garment”. It is used too of the mantle of Elijah. So the king casts aside the garment of fleshly hon­our, distinction and power to join cause with his people, indistinguishable from them as all are clad in sackcloth and ashes. And we are back with Paul in Galatians 3.

3:7 “And he caused it to be proclaimed and pub­lished through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything: let them not feed, nor drink water”

The king’s decree simply reinforces what has already been initiated by the people. He calls moreover for a period of intense self denial. There is an emphatic threefold prohibition: “not taste, not feed, not drink”.

When Paul reasoned of righteousness, temper­ance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled…” (Acts 24:25). The king of Nineveh exceeds the response of Felix. He recognises that faith must be followed by positive change, and active self-control.

3:8 “But let man and beast be covered with sack­cloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.”

The king identifies the approach that the nation must adopt, self-denial, contrition and humility, individual prayer to God, and a complete change and repudiation of an evil way of life. Again, all are placed on a common level (v5; Gal 3). Let them turn,” decreed the king, and how pleasing to Almighty God that He is able to observe in verse 10 that they had done just that.

There is a frank self-knowledge in the king’s edict. The Ninevites and As­syrians were notorious for their violence and cruelty. They have been called the Nazis of the ancient world. The prophet Nahum would later refer to Nineveh as the city of blood(Nah 3:1). But this must change. They must turn from their evil way, and from the vio­lence that is in their hands”.

3:9 “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?”

The king has no absolute assurance. He does not have Jonah’s understanding of Yahweh’s character. So who can tellis the king’s expression in verse 9. But in chapter 4:2, Jonah’s words express his certainty: for I knew”. God will always act in accordance with His character of mercy and goodness when there is a faithful response.

The ship’s captain in chapter 1:6 made a similar comment to that of the king: if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not”. And Joel picks up the words of the king and the context of Jonah chapter 3 and remarkably quotes the words of the edict of the Ninevite king in relation to Judah (Joel 2:12–14, quoting both Jonah 3:9 and 4:2). Indeed Yahweh through the prophet Joel effectively calls upon Judah to emulate the contrition and repent­ance of the Ninevites: Therefore also now, saith Yahweh, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourn­ing…Who knoweth if he [Yahweh] will return and repent?

3:10 The Divine Response to the Actions of the Ninevites

3:10 “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”

Works followed faith in these Ninevites. There was an active repudiation of their former evil way”. And since mercy rejoiceth against judgment”. God stayed His judgment upon the city. The word Godhere is elohim. It is probable that as was the case with Sodom, the angels desig­nated for either judgment or mercy were there in that city observing with Divine eyes the response of its inhabitants. Unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work(Psa 62:12). Jeremiah sets out the principle: At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jer18:7–8).

In verse 8, the king had said, let them turn every one from his evil way”, and in verse 10 the Divine assessment is that they have done just that!

So the Ninevites respond and believe in Godbecoming thereby sons of Abraham. They institute a type of Gentile Day of Atonement, a national acknowledgement of sin and a national period of fasting and contrition. There is a wonderful moral regeneration as they turn from evil to a new way of life.

And Jonah, the man whose preaching has triggered this unprecedented response looks on in growing anger and despair. This is what he had been afraid of all along; what a disaster!